Papier mache literally means’ chewed paper’! The craft is said to have travelled to India through Persia. Over the centuries, the craftsmen from Srinangar, the capital city of Kashmir, have mastered it. The beauty of this craft lies in its humble origins; the raw materials used are easily available locally! Paper rags of all possible paper varieties, except newspaper waste, are used to make the paper pulp. Unlike the common misunderstanding about the craft, that sand or sawdust is mixed in the paper pulp, only rice flour paste is added for the required stickiness.
Paper pulp is then pasted around the wooden or metal mould, which will give the exact shape. Once dried, paper pulp leaves the mould, and the base product, or the ‘Sakhta’, is ready! Finishing processes such as sanding and applying the chalk powder make the surface smooth so a Naqash (artist who does the painting) can use it as a canvas for intricate designs! Application of the varnish on the painting not only gives it the mirror-like shine but also makes it sturdy and waterproof to a certain extent.
Sakhasazi, or the art of making objects from paper pulp, and Naqashi, (art of painting beautiful designs) are two different craft forms and are generally practised by different communities. Unfortunately, the common word ‘Naqashi Art’ is being used for making the paper pulp objects as well as decorating them. During our trip to Srinagar, we had the privilege of meeting skilled artisans who have been practising this craft for the last 30 years and are struggling for the recognition of this craft as a stand-alone craft. It seems that ignorance does prevail among many government officials, which has a cascading effect in terms of addressing the training and skill development requirements as well as the distribution of aid to Sakhta artists.
Without any doubt, Sakhtasazi and Naqashi complement each other, and one is incomplete without the other, and each should get their deserved share of recognition.
Competition with Chinese products and the corner cutting techniques used to reduce costs are creating challenges for craftsmen following the traditional techniques and making the craft unsustainable. Many are reluctant to pass it on to their children. In spite of these challenges, the picture is not that gloomy. Local people from Kashmir have once again started giving Papier Mache products decorated with naqashi as return gifts at weddings, which has made the craft community hopeful of a brighter future. Sustainability of this eco-friendly craft is now at the mercy of the craft lovers who need to recognise the skills and loosen their purse strings for these handcrafted pieces of art made with human intensive efforts!